A chicken and egg conundrum for PR careers

In the run up to Easter, here’s a chicken and egg conundrum for PR careers. Should we start out as generalists before specialising or vice versa?

Does the navel gazing within PR (as noted in the interesting “Endless Fight” post and comment discussion preceding this one) – and a focus on being recognised as a profession – argue that the function is a specialism seeking exclusivity, even isolation and protection of a territory which may be shrinking beneath our feet?

Or is our claim to engage with broader stakeholder issues and organisational governance at a strategic level, evidence that PR is a generalist function?

Isaiah Berlin stated in his celebrated essay on Tolstoy: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing” (quoting the Greek poet Archilochus).  And, there’s a saying that generalists know less and less about more and more, while specialists know more and more about less and less.

Does either approach offer a model for PR careers? Or is the answer found in arguments for T-shaped people who combine breadth and depth?

The T-shape concept has been interpreted in many ways – indeed, I’ve seen it used in relation to digital communications to focus on being familiar with a range of tactical areas, with competence in one.  More widely, the idea has been promoted by the California based design firm IDEO, with the horizontal stroke a “disposition for collaboration across disciplines” alongside the vertical stroke reflecting depth of skill in a field. On this basis, we could state that PR is inherently T-shaped.

The term itself was first reported in 1991 in an article in The Independent, a British newspaper, referring to a hunt for a Renaissance Man of computing, and was used extensively in the 1990s to discuss T-Shaped Managers. A Renaissance Man is a polymath – who knows a lot about many different things. Knowledge and other broad strengths resulting in strong cultural and social capital would seem inherently important for public relations careers. But is this something we gain like middle age spread as we develop our careers from a lean, athletic starting point of specialist competencies?

This could be considered a military model of a profession where a career begins in a specific area, before breadth is added to become a General.

Alternatively, we could argue the starting point of PR careers – especially for graduates – is a rather broad underpinning before going onto specialise in digital communications, internal relations, public affairs, marketing PR etc?

This reflects the medical model of a profession where a career begins with a broad base, before a narrow focus is added to become a Specialist.

Where does this leave those who, to use Lauzen’s term, are ‘encroaching‘ in public relations by moving into the function mid-career? Are they adding breadth to their previous depth in an area such journalism or another focused discipline or sector expertise?

Does this imply that PR is actually Pi-shaped π – with two specialisms (sector and discipline) topped by general, transferable competencies? Or are there tripod people, if we apply a revolving doors metaphor to careers – where people switch between journalism, PR and other management roles. We could extend the idea for careers which could be N or M shaped to accommodate periods where time out is taken for various reasons – although this implies a loss of the horizontal breadth, where such breaks may actually enhance transferrable skills.

The traditional idea of a career was I shaped, drawing on a metaphor of a specialist ladder which was climbed until someone reached a plateau (i shaped?), possibly a comfort zone or level of incompetence (as the Peter Principle asserted). The ladder is still evident in PR agency models (account executive, to manager, to director, for example) and practitioner views of working your way up in the occupation.

However, the ladder model was challenged in the 1970s by Edgar Schein who argued a need for cross-sectional and cross-functional moves with a cone-shaped model indicating moving up hierarchically, around functions to gain experience and into the middle with closeness to a strategic decision making responsibility.

PR practitioners may gain access to the inner core as specialists, but without cross-functional knowledge or experience, their contribution there may be limited. Also, do they have the breadth to reach the sweet spot as organisational leaders. Public relations seems less of a track to this goal than other disciplines that perhaps offer specialisms viewed inherently as a stronger vertical path.

Or perhaps we should draw on punctuation as a model instead? Does a full stop represent those who spend their time practising essentially a tactical, craft? Or maybe a colon where they’ve jumped from PR as media relations to become social media ‘gurus’ (content marketing, storytelling or whatever)? Or is this a hyphen approach? Are those who practice shouty marketing-publicity approaches simply exclamation marks? With the reflective, strategist as the question mark?

I wonder if this isn’t all too structured to equip practitioners in a changing world with less career certainty and greater perceived mobility. Would a messy squiggle or an infinity symbol better represent the modern world?

This might seem light-hearted but masks a serious question for the PR function, those working within it and their careers. Is this simply a specialism to be mastered using a ladder metaphor? Or is it a generalist competency that supports robust T-shaped development?

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30 Replies to “A chicken and egg conundrum for PR careers

  1. Love the discussion all. On reading the comments and well-made points, it occurs to me that one thing that does ‘make’ an excellent communicator is life experience. When we consider what it is we do, relationship-building (as I referred to earlier) is but part of of it. And yes, understanding how business works is crucial. What struck me as a more mature entrant into journalism was the lack of understanding of the situations that younger journalists in their 20s and early 30s were covering. This lack of insight brought about through experience shines is reflected in so much of the media coverage we see today. On top of professional development and experiences, it is our overall life experience and knowledge that adds the depth to our competencies and our ability to build relationships.

    1. Helen – I agree about having an understanding of situations or what I’d call context but I don’t think this just comes from life experience. Having said that, I believe utterly in the importance of gaining as many experiences as possible in life – and not narrowing down career opportunities too soon.

      However, there are two other aspects I find my Undergraduate students often lack.

      One is a historical perspective, and particularly of cultural and other developments from the recent as well as more distant past. As an example, I have a student looking at the use of religious imagery in music industry promotions as his dissertation project – with a focus on Kanye West’s Jeesus project. I said this was interesting and related to John Lennon’s comments about the Beatles and Jesus as well as Madonna and Like a Prayer, and other previous examples. He didn’t know of these – and I think it is because so much modern communications are of the here and now and lacking context.

      Yes, we all gain our own perspective on history through our experiences of living through it, but we were also brought up in a world where our parents and grandparents as well as popular culture itself was connected to a historical context.

      The second is curiosity. This has to be one of the most important, generalist skills that you need in PR. We have to be able to be interested in lots of different things and be curious about them. My favourite question is “What if…?” as we have to always be questioning and looking at things in a different way. I find that this is something that isn’t natural to many younger people. In academia, we call this ‘critical thinking’ in terms of looking at things from all sides.

      So combining experience, curiosity and an interest in history would fill the gap you identify.

      1. Heather not only do I entirely agree with you, but I wish to rationalise an experience that I am currently living with many of my masters (!) students and that I fear is bound to multiply.

        In short, and for the first time in a significant percentage of students, they openly say that everything that has happened the day before yesterday is practically useless and bears little interest for their education….

        An example (but one of many..in these recent months): a team of students is working on a program to reach out to peers studying public relations who participate in specific pr related social networks, in an effort to attract their interest in research as an essential component of their day-to-day professsional practice.

        They do this by extracting in a few words of attractive contents the sense of existing and available papers with links to the original texts.

        In selecting the first 20 papers on which to focus their outreach work, my students spontaneously selected only papers written in these last few months from a database containing papers on a myriad of issues from the last 20 years.

        When I asked them the reason, one of them replied ‘but they are old papers and therefore not valid anymore’…and none of the others students seemed to think differently!!

        I find this horrific, and somewhat stretching my interpretation, it seems as if in their minds history, culture and knowledge contrast with the always-on syndrome most of students today seem to suffer.

        I might be well overboard in my depression, but do others notice this as a growing phenomenon?

        1. Toni – it is an interesting development. Not wanting to beat up on ‘Digital Natives’ or whatever term we wish to apply, I wonder where this trend comes from. Has school education not supported a connection with the foundation of any knowledge base? Have parents not played music and talked about their own lives in a way that engages young people? Has the media become so instant and disposable that we’ve lost context in stories? Have organisations disposed of their archives so there is no tradition being carried forwards?

          It seems odd when it has never been easier to access the past through online means. But perhaps that’s part of the problem. It is all there but requires us to seek it where previously, old music, films, books and so on were part of what we all consumed. There is actually irony in the fact that much of contemporary culture deliberately references (steals/borrows) from earlier work – but maybe that goes over the head of some people…

          I see history/context as part of a long thread and wish to pull at it all the time to see where things came from. Or to use the tree analogy, we need to know where the roots are and how deep they are buried before reaching up and out (or we might just fall over).

          1. Tonin and Heather,

            When I left lecturing at the end of the 90s/beginning of 2000 but before the ubiquitous spread of digital media, I noticed a trend towards “instant anecdotal knowledge of the media.” At that time it was the dominance of MTV, music videos, soap operas and reality series that was discernanble. And indeed the most popular and most sought after course at our media center was TV production. The students weren’t in theory at all. All they wanted was tio get in front of the camera and appear on TV. Local TV was enough, because national TV was beyond their reach. And the greatest celebrity was any former student who madet it to one of the then three national TV stations.

            From your observations, this disdain for foundational theoretical knowledge of media as a subject has continued into the digital era. Maybe self-publishing of “selfies” and instant knowledge has become the norm with the power to publish at the finger tips of every Tom, Dick and Harry.

            Ironically, if these self-publishers cared about the theoretical explanation of their predicament, they would learn that media theorist Marchall McLuhan predicted these developments over 50 years ago.

  2. As a PR student right now, I have thought so many of these questions before. I have a hard time telling people what I eventually want to end up in because PR is so broad, and the options are so different from each other. I have had a lot of classes that talk about so many different specialties in PR, and they are all very different. It’s hard to narrow down what you want to do. I do like the T-shaped model for the career. That’s how I’ve begun to visualize how my career will probably go. I see it as working my way up until I have to pick one way or the other!

    1. Thank you for your comment Lauren. If we take Natalie’s analogy of a tree (which I really like as a development of the T-shape), our careers certainly need that strong trunk (vertical) and healthy branches (horizontal) on which our creative leaves and fruit can flourish!

      Building on that concept, our growth and experiences will be evident in both aspects/dimensions.

      Within our trunk, the equivalent of dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) should show ongoing professional and personal development across the years within our core/specialist competency area(s).

      Our branches and leaves should together form a strong canopy – which will comprise several horizontal layers of our more generalist talents, skills and knowledge.

      I like this metaphor so much that I’m going to write a post about it on my personal blog and will post a link back here shortly 😉

    2. Your comment, together with the tree and rainforest analogies evoked in this post, all came back to me last night while listening to the Bad Plus Group debut at the Jazz Standard in New York.
      As Rolling Stone wrote “It’s about as badass as highbrow gets”.
      I am a jazz fan and was stunned at the quality of this performance and said to myself that, where you there with me, you would probably wonder if what the the three musicians were playing was jazz.

      But we recognize an infinite number of ‘specific applications’ in jazz, as there are in public relations… There is nothing better than embracing a career offering a wide and growing variety of expressions….

  3. Thanks for your response, Lyndon. Sadly, what describe above is still prevalent at some PR agencies. It is what PR scholar James Grunig called “press agentry” in his four PR models.

    Fortunately, the crop of PR practioners who migrated from Journalism to PR with only writing skills as their major tactical asset are being phased out.

    In PR academia, it is generally acknowledged that relationship enhancement is the core competence for effective PR.

    Regards, Don

    1. Hi Don,

      I love the term ‘press agentry’ and I’ll definitely check out James Grunig’s work.

      I’d argue that it’s still prevalent at the majority of agencies. I’ve spent the last two or three years looking for PR companies that offer a relationship-based service and can count the number I’ve found on the fingers of two hands. Possibly a single hand. If you have some examples of agencies that are focused on relationship building then I’d love to know about them.

      Everything I read about the industry talks about publicity, not relationships and it appears that the future of PR is now content marketing!! This suggests to me that the writers are still alive and strong in the industry and that most PR people fundamentally misunderstand [either deliberately or through ignorance] what public relations is about.

      It’s reassuring that academia is at least trying to give people the right start. It’s up to the industry to re-engineer their business models accordingly.

      Best wishes,


      1. Lyndon – it is very sad to hear about your experiences in finding a more strategic and relationship-focused PR agency. Looking at your business model, your focus on relationships would seem particularly relevant for small-businesses and start-ups which all too often fall prey to the ‘sell-em-a-press-release’ school of PR.

        When I did some research on the origins of careers in PR for a paper at the International History of PR conference a few years ago, I related the role to one of ‘commenda’ who in medieval times managed trade between merchants, or as Weber identified it, an agent as intermediary acting between two parties. This historic role was just as you describe in terms of keeping the knowledge of the two parties to themselves. The old ‘knowledge is power’ model.

        You will find on PR Conversations that we fundamentally disagree with this approach and also that the future of PR is in ‘content marketing’. My own experience is in an industry (automotive) where relationships continue to be important, and not just between PR and media. Those consultancies (rather than agencies) who specialise in the sector are very relationship focused, and that is shared with the client too as it remains very much a face-to-face business.

        But I do agree with you that we seem to be increasingly also in a world of content production (and not just of the written form) as a substitute for genuine PR. As I said – sad!

        1. Morning Heather,

          It’s very sad and damning on our industry. The approach that most PR companies take with small businesses and startups is ‘sell them a cheaper retainer’, which is generally media-focused and is the same combination of press release, pitching, interviews and coverage.

          Your description of how PR came to be is also where the term retainer came from – you paid somebody to retain their favour. You paid a third party to look after your interests. I don’t have a problem with having an intermediary – if it is required, or paying a third party for guidance… but the problem these days is that very few PR people understand what the difference between PR, marketing and publicity is. The sole purpose of most agencies is to sell some kind of alchemy – and the kind that is in their financial best interest, not the interest of their customers.

          It is great to hear that the site is focused on the non ‘press agentry’ model – I love the term Don btw… it’s a really accurate description… and it’s clear from the contributors that that is the case. I also think that it is important to distinguish between agencies and consultancies. There is a difference. We need to make this clear both inside and outside our industry.

          I think that, ultimately, ‘social’ will fade as the results fail to be realized and the focus will return to relationships. Proper relations; not fast friendships.

          Great discussion. Thanks for getting us started.


          1. Lyndon,

            Great you like the “press agentry” designation. As mentioned earlier the credit goes to PR guru James E. Grunig and his equally eminent PR researcher wife Larissa Grunig for coinining the phrase. If I am not mistaken, PRC’s Judy Gombita has met both of them.

            While googling for an appropriate link to the four models I came across Bill Sledzik’s blog: “Tough Sledding” where he gives a concise description of the models. He also credits Judy for having alerted him to a paper discussing the models: http://toughsledding.wordpress.com/2008/08/10/the-4-models-of-public-relations-practice-how-far-have-you-evolved/

            Regards, Don

          2. Alas, Don, I have yet to “meet” either of the Grunigs. It’s Toni who has a personal (and long-time) friendship with both of them.

            My connections are limited to LinkedIn, plus some email communication with Lauri Grunig. Every few months I attempt to persuade her to take the PRoust Questionnaire.

            Lyndon, check out the video of the two of them that PR Conversations was honoured to get “first publishing” rights to!

            Grunig PR Masterclass: Insight into diversity and excellence

  4. There is one aspect of our professional knowlegde that has not yet, I think, been mentioned:
    how organizations work.

    I do not see how -if you are a specialist in investor, media, community or supplier relationships you can pretend to earn a living by helping an organization in improving, without knowing the fundamentals of how to understand what makes an organization tick.

    Clearly this implies that one should begin inhouse and, with a proper critical mind, understand the ‘generic principles and specific applications’ of how organizations function and -from there- move into a specific area of expertise either in house or in an agency.

    Of course some agencies are as structured and living organizations as their clients (not all of them, but some are).

    Otherwise public relations would not be a part of management.

    This is what I always advise my students to do. Very few however take me up on this as the stereotype is that being inhouse is boring and less creative than an agency.
    But many, years after, tell me I was right in the first place.

    Again this depends on the single organization and the single agency. Much can be learned today more than yesterday by actively listening to organizations and agencies before spamming them with one’s cv…..

    1. Toni – thanks for the comment. My take on what you have said would be that what is most important is the ability to understand how organisations work. Indeed, I’d broaden that out to wider society too. This then applies regardless of whether you work in-house or in a consultancy. It is less about knowledge of any particular organisation (although that’s important if it is your employer or client), but being able to understand ANY organisation and how it works, how to assess its culture and so on.

      I’m often surprised with undergraduate students (and many experienced PR practitioners) that they are not aware of how organisatons are funded, governed or operate. This applies to media organisations too – I had a long discussion with a student the other day about the difference between funding and governance within the BBC and Sky for example. Again many PR people are ignorant about how mainstream and social media companies operate and are owned etc. Then they seem surprised when these organisations need to make money.

      1. I do connect with @Lyndon’s and @Toni’s sentiments above. The disconnect in their argument seems to suggest that “most PR professionals” don’t either see the importance of relationship building or how organizations functions. Of course there are mediocre and average performers in any given field — PR is no exception. To isolate the lowest denominator as the benchmark of the PR profession is misleading.

        I can’t think of any profession that can thrive without relating to its micro and macro environmnet. This is not the preserve of any given profession. And within given professions there are varying degrees of success of how well individual practitioners relate — PR is no exception.

        To revert to the T-metaphor above, one would say those who excel in PR might have a thicker more mature down stroke on relationships and a horizontal stroke representing tactical competencies.

        1. Good morning Don, I agree that isolating the lowest common denominator as the benchmark – but the sad thing about the PR [agency, at least] world is that my description describes the majority. Google PR agencies and they almost always focus on media relations and sell pitching services, rather than helping customers build mutually beneficial relationships.

          This not only doesn’t help customers build relationships [the whole model of the industry at large is about being paid to pitch] and, when the retainer stops being paid, the customer often has nothing. There has been no skills exchange, no direct customer to journalist contact [PR agencies are loathed to give journalists customer contact information or vice versa]. The majority of PR people don’t have strong relationships with the journalists they pitch, and when they have a relationship it’s often about their customers, rather than being a mutually beneficial relationship where the PR adds value to the journalist above and beyond their own customers.

          Best wishes, Lyndon

        2. Lyndon, Heather and Don, what frustrates me about the gurus/pundits who are staking a claim on “social” PR is that the tree branch (to steal Natalie’s wonderful analogy) they are hanging the “relationship building” on is building “online communities.” They like to do it on their own boutique agency (or personal) blog, and they tell their clients that they will also help them build a “community” with their fans-of-the-brand. And, yes, they will feed them all kinds of wonderful CONTENT marketing to keep them there.

          In Part III of my interview with Kelly Hungerford of Paper.li, I said this about “communities.”

          “I’ve found online communities to be rather fluid—one day they are robust and then poof many members appear to have moved on to other places. This is OK. The best engagement is rooted in experience and generosity, whether for the short or the long term.

          Communities are an online form of culture and the best ones bring out a natural energy, passion and joy in people, revolving around ideas rather than sitting at the feet of one “sage” waiting for pearls of (unquestioned) wisdom to drop out of the person’s mouth. Brand communities, in particular, should have mindful succession planning in place, meaning it shouldn’t be all about one individual.”

          Two side notes: I am absolutely thrilled, even if it’s for the short term, that in recent weeks we’ve seen all kinds of comment engagement here on PR Conversations, not just from long-time Champions like Don Radoli (and medium-time like Natalie Bovair), but people new to PR Conversations, like Helen Slater, Allan Kelly (in Sean Williams’ recent post) and you, Lyndon Johnson (who lives/works in the same city as me)!

          Lyndon, the second note is to you: You wished Don a “good morning” last week, but it was already his late afternoon (Don is a Kenyan ex-pat who has lived and worked in Norway for a number of years). In fact, the majority of people who comment regularly on this blog live in time zones other than Canada and the USA. For example, the other two principals are based in the UK (Heather) and Austria (Markus Pirchner). Ergo, it’s best not to give a salutation related to time of day! 🙂

          So, Heather, where do we put the “global connections” in public relations, in the trunk of the T or in the arms reaching out?

          1. I think that a global mindset is a generalist competency – although one could argue that knowing about global aspects of PR is part of the trunk too as it enhances our specialism.

          2. Please allow a very old stager to say that what is really surprising in the context of a “profession” which has been developing over sixty or more years, is that people have the time and the intellect to talk about PR skills and agency/management structures. How delightful at last !

            I do think that your discussion are getting ahead of itself. Surely more basic work needs to be considered and agreed on what is the practice of PR, what skills and competencies are needed for the practice of PR and at what level. I would be happy, if others are interested, especially in the context of Stephen Waddington’s current interest, to lay some foundations on my thoughts above.

            They would draw on earlier work from the time when the Education Committee of the IPR worked over a period of years on a skills and knowledge framework, which begat NVQs in public relations and lead to the pilot CPD scheme (of which I was the author).

          3. Nigel – thank you for your comment on this post, which also relates to the more recent one by Anne Gregory and Jean Valin re global standards as being investigated by the Global Alliance.

            My purpose in this 2014 post was not to set out to define the practice of PR (that’s something that we’ve discussed elsewhere many times on PR Conversations).

            My interest is in looking at the careers being enacted by PR practitioners (however they may individually define what they do) and linking that to concepts from within the career studies field.

            I’m sure your views on the practice of PR, skills/knowledge and levels would be of interest to those undertaking the Global Alliance standards project (and no doubt you know Anne if not Jean well).

            I will point out your comment to them and suggest they get in touch.

  5. An interesting post, Heather. I wonder if there’s two ways we achieve that T-shape. First, when we start out, there’s often a specialisation in one area, such as media relations – I think this is probably more common in agencies. This broadens out into the wider discipline as we gain a generalist understanding (the little knowledge about a lot) of the other areas of communication & PR. We then are able to identify where we can add deeper value and specialisation.

    Then, there are those who start out in their careers able to work across the whole spectrum as generalists from the start, perhaps more likely in in-house roles. They are then able to focus more on a specialisation, such as internal comms or public affairs, to form their ‘down stroke’.

    In my own career, I’d probably form a N or M, as I’ve moved from other careers (interior design) to journalism to communication. Each has added to the next and as I moved into communication & PR, I built on a knowledge of media, but mostly, I have built on the ability to develop relationships and collaborate with people. As I analyse my career, it is the relationship-building that is the common denominator and I agree with Lyndon – relationship-building is the primary requirement in our business. Without that ability, we can’t possibly be effective, regardless of how much theory or learning we have about the technicalities of PR.

    1. Helen – I agree with you about how we can view our careers as adding to our skills and competencies cumulatively. Even if we take time out or come at PR from an unusual direction, it is rare that our previous lives don’t have some connection with what we then do. Likewise, I feel that PR is one of those occupations which potentially gives us a great set of transferable skills.

  6. I am a proponent of the need for generalist understanding of the body of knowledge taught by academics in public relations as a foundation for practice, after which specialization often occurs naturally in keeping the strengths and interests of the PR practitioner. Thus, the T-shape fits.

    As I reflect on my own career, I like to think that I’ve developed multiple legs of specialized knowledge. Maybe the downward stroke of my T is thicker or deeper in places, like the trunk of an old tree. Many trees hold the same shape throughout their lifetime but their trunks and main branches will bend to the winds and thicken with age.

  7. I agree with you Lyndon and have argued that we should be teaching relationship building (not just relationship theory) at University level if we are teaching the tactical side of written communications.

    Interestingly, I’ve been told that this isn’t possible to teach – which seems to suggest that relationships are innate or personality based or learned the hard way rather than being developed through educative means such as coaching, which I think is nonsense.

    Where relationship skills fit in the T-shaped person – from the IDEO conceptualisation, I suppose they are in the horizontal stroke in terms of being able to collaborate with others. Although there will be specific relationship aspects that apply to PR that should be in the vertical stroke too.

  8. An interesting piece and one that many agencies are struggling with right now.

    I think that the key is what are the base skills for PR professionals. PR is about building relationships not, as most PR people think, about media coverage. It is about understanding how to build relationships, rather than simply bombarding a mass audience with messages and requests to do something. It’s about listening and winning trust, not about shouting as loudly as possible about how great your product or service is.

    Most agencies believe they need people that can write press releases; create killer headlines; possess fantastic pitching skills; are social media ninjas, wizards or alchemists… in reality, none of these matter when the aim is to help their customers build relationships with their audiences. Most PR people can’t even build relationships with their customers, let alone help their customers do it!


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